Is Lance Armstrong's doping investigation really closed?
Two old cycling rivals were reunited last week -- but in the news, not on the bikes. It's a different decade, but we have the same result: Lance Armstrong wins, Jan Ullrich loses.
So it would seem on the surface. On Feb. 8, Ullrich was sanctioned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for his involvement in a blood-doping ring uncovered by Spanish police in 2006. He retired that year, but it took six years for justice to catch up with him.
Five days before that, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. delivered some very welcome news for Armstrong. In an announcement timed to draw as little notice as possible -- Birotte's press release came out late on the Friday preceding the Super Bowl -- his office revealed that it was "closing an investigation into allegations of federal criminal conduct by members and associates of a professional bicycle racing team owned in part by Lance Armstrong."
The Armstrong investigation began nearly two years ago, spurred in part by allegations from Armstrong's former teammate Floyd Landis that doping was widespread on their U.S. Postal Service squad. A year after Landis made his allegations, Tyler Hamilton went on 60 Minutes, admitting to doping throughout his cycling career. Like Landis, Hamilton was an ex-teammate of Armstrong's. Like Landis, he said he'd seen Armstrong take banned substances with his own eyes. (Armstrong denies ever using performance-enhancing drugs.)
The use of PEDs is not a crime. A source familiar with the investigation told SI.com that authorities were looking into the possibility that Armstrong and U.S. Postal team officials may have committed mail fraud, wire fraud, drug distribution and witness tampering. The source described the evidence against Armstrong as "overwhelming," and said investigators were stunned and blindsided by Birotte's announcement.
Armstrong celebrated by embracing his girlfriend and children, he told The Associated Press, then cracking open "a cold beer." He also told the wire service that Birotte's decision should begin to put an end to allegations that he doped to win.
"It's over," he said. "I'm moving on."
If Armstrong's celebration seemed slightly muted, it could be because people like Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and David Howman do not share his desire to "move on." Tygart followed Birotte's Super Bowl-Eve announcement with a statement of his own:
"Unlike the U.S. Attorney, USADA's job is to protect clean sport rather than enforce specific criminal laws. Our investigation into doping in the sport of cycling is continuing and we look forward to obtaining the information developed during the federal investigation."
The USADA put its Armstrong probe on hold while the feds investigated him. Now that the feds are finished, that inquiry has been resumed; its broad scope includes riders, coaches and team doctors on Armstrong's team, and could have a significant effect on whom USA Cycling invites to participate in the upcoming London Olympics. Several of Armstrong's former teammates still riding in the pro peloton will be following this case with keen interest -- and, if Birotte's office cooperates with USADA -- a sinking feeling. While USADA can't convict anyone of a crime, it does have the power to suspend riders and disqualify results. Armstrong could be stripped of at least some of his seven Tour de France titles. And his reputation would take an incalculable hit.
If Armstrong were to be found guilty of doping violations, litigants would start taking numbers to sue him, forcing his legal fees, already onerous, to go up. In 2004, SCA Promotions underwrote a $5 million bonus to Armstrong, for winning his fifth straight Tour. When questions arose about whether Armstrong had used PEDs to win, SCA refused to pay. Armstrong sued, and got his bonus. Do you think SCA president Bob Hamman would like to get his money back?
Grand jury testimony given to the feds will remain confidential. Yet, "there have obviously been many interviews, many statements made and other pieces of evidence that would be pretty helpful," says Howman, CEO of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who is closely monitoring USADA's progress.
How much of that will the U.S. attorney's office be willing to pass along? Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for Birotte, does not strike an especially encouraging note: "We have received a request for information from USADA," he said. "We are considering that request, in light of our legal obligations, and Department of Justice policy, and we will respond to them in due course. I don't know when that's going to be."
One gets the distinct impression that Birotte is no rush to work with USADA. That -- like his decision to drop the criminal case -- is strange, because there is a clear precedent for athletes being sanctioned by their governing bodies based on evidence gathered in the course of criminal investigations. "That's the way the federal agencies operated in Balco," says Howman. A number of elite American sprinters and coaches were suspended before the 2004 Athens Olympics, based on evidence gathered in a federal investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, which supplied them with a previously undetectable steroid. (Remember "The Clear"?)
That precedent has been, if anything,
"There are no legal hurdles" to the U.S. Attorney's office working with USADA, says one international official familiar with this case. "If they don't [hand evidence over], it will be because they're sitting on overwhelming evidence of drug cheating in sport. It will be an international sports doping cover-up of the worst sort."
There is the example of good old Jan Ullrich. In May 2006, Spanish police discovered some 100 bags of blood, among other doping products, when they raided the apartment of a Spanish doctor. DNA evidence proved that Ullrich's blood was in one of those bags. It took nearly six years, but justice found him last week.
Likewise, it caught up to Alberto Contador, the three-time Tour de France winner who was transformed into a
"The arc of the moral universe is long," as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, "but it bends toward justice." Years from now, or perhaps sooner, Armstrong may be on the receiving end of a bad-news phone call. He may find himself reaching for another beer, this time for a different reason.